Technology Trends | Viewpoint

Is There a Future for Computer Labs?

Though centralized PC labs have been an important part of both campus space planning and IT infrastructure for the last two decades, this may be changing. With the advent of laptop computers, it is becoming increasingly common for students to own personal computers. In fact, about 83 percent of students at four-year-colleges own them, up dramatically from 36 percent in 2003 (though the number of laptop toting students at community colleges is probably somewhat less).

With universities looking to cut costs, it might be tempting to limit or reduce the amount of space dedicated to computing labs, as well as to reduce the number of publicly available computers. This would save the cost of purchasing new PCs and the costs of supporting them. Consider that yearly maintenance can cost upwards of $500 per device.

But does this suggest the end of computer labs? For those campuses where the majority of students do not own laptops, the answer is probably no. On those campuses where computer ownership is high, there may well be, in the long run, a reduction of traditional computer labs composed of row after row of desktops. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the cost of space and IT support can now be allocated for non-computing activities.

While the days of computer labs may be numbered, other kinds of student-centered academic computing support will certainly be required. This support will take the form of computer collaboration, friendly small group huddle areas, and virtual computer labs to support the specialized software requirements of mathematics and engineering students, for example.

Huddle Areas
More and more, students are working collaboratively, and, increasingly, universities are providing student lounge and huddle areas to accommodate both academic and social activities. These non-classroom, informal learning spaces are typically made up of discrete areas sized to accommodate about four or five students at a table, with power receptacles and connectivity to a shared large-screen flat panel display, which can be table- or wall-mounted.

Think of a series of booths commonly found in diners, which provide a minimal separation among groups. In some cases, acoustic and visual separation may be enhanced by increasing the height of the panels between booths.

In lounge areas in classroom buildings, libraries, and dorms, furniture is often arranged to support small workgroups. Again, power and display capabilities are often provided.

Movable furniture allows flexibility in the number of students that make up a group.

Some institutions, commonly business schools, are formalizing these huddle areas by furnishing clusters of small, five-person conference rooms in the vicinity of larger lecture halls. With the addition of inexpensive video cams, these spaces become effective remote collaboration video teleconferencing rooms.

Virtual Computer Labs
While it may be true that some specialized computing support for advanced statistical programs, simulation, and 3D modeling tools may continue to be furnished via dedicated, centrally located, shared desktop PCs, increasingly there is a trend toward moving away from physical to virtual computing labs.

Virtual computing labs comprise servers and other infrastructure located in a data center, which supports application virtualization, the creation of a virtual environment to run specialized programs, which can be remotely accessed by students via their laptops. The software, data, and processing are all remotely housed. The laptop provides the keyboard and screen with which to view and access this functionality. This trend toward "cloud computing" significantly lessens the need for traditional computer labs.

Bottom Line
While it may be tempting by those on some campuses to interpret the trend away from providing computer labs as opportunities to save on computing related space allocation and IT funding, they really represent a call for allocating space and funding in new ways. The need to allocate resources properly will necessitate institutions to learn how to continue to meet challenge of creating non-traditional learning environments that support collaborative mobile computing.

About the Author

Michael David Leiboff is the founder of EdTech Planning Group. He has more than 30 years of experience and has been involved in the planning and implementation of hundreds of advanced technology learning spaces. He can be reached at 914-401-4172 or at mleiboff@edtechpg.com.

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